A new mother wonders how to get past the ‘am I doing it right?’ anxiety

Carolyn Hax
Columnist May 21, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi there:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I’m a new mom of a pretty fun but challenging 6-month-old boy. I am a naturally decisive person, but the anxiety I’m feeling over making the “right” decisions or providing him the “right” things has been difficult to cope with.

For example, since I’ve gone back to work, I haven’t been able to pump enough milk, and I’ve needed to start supplementing with formula. I intellectually know that this is fine and that many babies have formula, but for some reason I’m beating myself up over it. Why can’t I produce enough milk, why can’t I provide what I’m supposed to for him, etc.?

Also with regard to other things — like when to stop swaddling at night, how and what solids to feed him — I feel so worried I’m going to do something that is less than optimal that might hurt his development. I’m second-guessing myself very often and starting to drive myself crazy, and I know that isn’t good.


(Nick Galifianakis)

Do you have any suggestions for how to calm my anxieties so I can just do the best I can and be happy with that place?

Anxious

The anxiety generated by formulaphobia comes from a well-meaning place — yay, breast milk, let’s all agree — but is so needless and widespread that I’ll address it separately upfront: To quote a pediatrician, “It’s not like you’re feeding him poison.” You’ve chosen to feed your baby with Plan B instead of leaving him hungry in service to Plan A. If that’s failure, then sign me up for some.

As for the other stuff, it’s okay to use the same general approach: Make the best decisions you’re able to for your baby, but don’t drive yourself nuts trying to make everything perfect. The “why” is easy: Not to give you something new to get all fired up about, but you’ll be a better mom if you make a few “less than optimal” choices while remaining upbeat than you’ll be if frenzied with the effort to get everything “right.”

The “how” is a little more difficult, because you’re disposed to perfectionism in a cultural environment where many different businesses and bystanders stand to benefit from feeding exactly that parental anxiety.

Still, you can beat it (or just beat it back) by fixing your eyes on what matters most: Kids benefit most from parents who are educated and supportive. Check the research. You’ve got wiggle room on the details.

To reinforce a decision to go mellow vs. “optimal,” seek out people who are notably calm, accepting, wry about pureed organic root vegetables, and highly skeptical of the whole idea of having preconceived goals for their kids. Also put some distance, if you can, between you and anyone who subscribes to a competitive child-rearing mentality.

There are, of course, advantages to be conveyed to your child through breastfeeding, organic pureed root vegetables, and the kind of awesome schools that attract competitive parents like sparkles to figure skating. “Chill out” as a parenting creed has its pitfalls.

But for parents already invested to the point of self-sacrifice in doing right by their children, the anti-anxiety prescription is to ease up a bit. Trust that your values will nurture your kid completely enough for you to let a few t’s go uncrossed.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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